A concerted, administration-led campaign to end homelessness among military veterans is going well. That, at least, was the consensus among participants in a Homeless Veterans Symposium sponsored by The American Legion on Aug. 24. Nearly a dozen veteran advocates representing both the federal and the private sectors gathered at the organization's national convention in Indianapolis to share insight.
The symposium was, in part, a progress report on a five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans that was announced by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki during the Legion's 2009 national convention. Was Shinseki's "call to arms" the catalyst of an effort that has seen, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report, an overall 56.2 percent decline in veteran homelessness since 2008? John Driscoll, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., based National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), offered his thoughts.
"I think that he (Shinseki) recognized that it was already happening and recognized the value of it. But, actually, it was President Obama who made it a mandate for this nation's government agencies to work with service agencies," Driscoll said.
The assortment of symposium participants exhibited this mix. Dr. Susan Angell and Stacy Knipscheer represented the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). HUD's John Dorgan sat with them as did the Department of Labor's Gary Tyler. Among those seated across the table was Cindy Thomas of the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation and, representing private industry, Nicole Lindberg of Polaris Laboratories — a fluid analysis company headquartered in Indianapolis.
Lindberg's employer is among an increasing number of companies nationwide lending their support to the campaign to end homelessness by providing employment — a key weapon in the fight — as well as donating goods, volunteer services and funds to support the effort. Driscoll addressed this phenomenon as well. "(Obama) said if we are truly going to end veteran homelessness, corporate America is going to have to step up to the table and help. He was saying that the problem was so big that federal resources alone aren't enough."
The group agreed that largely unprecedented close collaborations among advocates from governments — federal to local — volunteer agencies and industries are primary drivers of success in the fight to end veteran homelessness. New ways of "doing business" were also cited with a differing view on substance abuse and mental health issues, which are common components of homelessness, among them.
As Knipscheer said, "The VA has taken a major paradigm shift. The VA is now saying ‘housing first.' So, the very first order of business isn't ‘you have to be clean and sober for this many days; that you have to be on your medication for this many days.' No, they're now saying that the first thing is to have a roof over your head, then you can move toward some of those other goals with supportive services wrapped around you. But, your housing isn't contingent upon being clean and sober. It's not holding a carrot out in front (of the homeless veteran) and saying ‘you can have housing if...'."
The role and laudable efforts of the Department of Defense in providing early and thorough transition assistance and counseling to active-duty personnel in hopes of preventing eventual homelessness was also emphasized during the discussion.
The American Legion's self-directed, longstanding campaign to end veteran homelessness was mentioned favorably on several occasions, as well with NCHV's Matt Gornick noting his collaboration with Legion Deputy Economic Division Director Mark Walker in the production of a handbook for homeless veterans and service providers. A description of and a downloadable link for the 25-page booklet, "On-Call", is available here .